CLAY COUNTY, AR (KAIT) - He is not a teacher, but both children and adults have learned from the example he sets.
Gene Ellis transports some of the most precious cargo every single day. Even after they get off of his bus, he’s still taking care of them.
A cloud of dust follows Ellis’ bus on a Wednesday afternoon as he makes his rounds on the rural back roads of Clay County. He’s been driving for the Rector School District for 33 years now.
“We love our Gene,” Dawn Sims, a former Rector school teacher and employee of the Northeast Arkansas Education Coop said. She worked with Ellis for 23 of those years. Sims says Ellis cares about his students long after they get off of his bus.
“If he felt that there was some type of need, he would ask. Whether it was clothes or money for a ballgame, money for a ticket for something. He would either purchase whatever was needed or he would give me the money and say, ‘Go take care of it,’” Sims said.
On this afternoon, the ride is long and bumpy down many a gravel road. But, in just a moment, Ellis is about to get a big surprise!
An unscheduled stop. Ellis is being summoned back to school.
“Gene Ellis?” I asked the driver behind the wheel as the school bus door unfolded.
"Thousands of students and faculty and staff have been touched by Gene throughout the years. That’s why Gene Ellis you are our next winner in the Gr8 Acts of Kindness,” I explain. A crowd gathered on the lawn of the school erupts into applause. The students from Ellis’ bus are now standing beside him with big smiles on their faces.
They help to count out $408.
“You’ll spend that money, but you’ll have this check to hold onto and remember today,” Allen Williams, Community President of First Community Bank said.
Ellis is not used to being on the receiving end.
“Congratulations!” teachers and friends hug Ellis’ neck.
Ellis is more one to tease.
“I put up with this one for a long time,” Ellis says with a grin as Sims hugs him.
He’s not very serious—except when it comes to “his kids.”
“This money. It will probably be spent on the kids. I just do things. Get’em stuff. I don’t care,” Ellis said.
“He’s not one to look for recognition. He’s not the one to look for. Like look what I’m doing! He just knows when people are in need of help,” Nathan Henderson, Rector High School principal said.
“Gene has bought breakfast for my whole class,” Sims said.
“If someone wants something, all they got to do is ask. I get it for them. I don’t care,” Ellis said.
Ellis says helping others is something that he learned from his parents.
He grew up here, attended Rector Schools until farming full-time caught his eye.
"Well, like a dummy, I went through the 8th grade and quit to work on the farm,” Ellis said.
He also began driving a school bus and working on maintenance for the district.
“He’ll go into the Ag shop and help us weld around and fix panels,” Tristen Gunn, a Rector High School tenth grader, said.
Gunn rides Ellis’ bus.
“I get on about 7:15 a.m.,” Gunn said.
Gunn can’t imagine life without him.
“It wouldn’t be as happy because he brings the joy into what we do,” Gunn said.
“See you all later now!” Ellis waves goodbye and retracts the red stop sign next to his window back.
His bus lumbers along slowly down the gravel road, headed back to school.